“Gareth Southgate, the whole of England is with you.” So says Jonathan Pearce in the snippet of commentary at the start of the 1998 version of a certain song by David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and The Lightning Seeds.
The dust has settled on an extraordinary summer of football that saw France deservedly secure their second World Cup. In England, there has been much debate about the extent to which the fans ought to celebrate their country’s most successful World Cup since 1990. Little was expected of the young, inexperienced side overseen by Southgate yet one can’t help the nagging feeling that Croatia could have been beaten and we might have seen England in a World Cup final on foreign soil, a genuinely once in a lifetime possibility. England had not got this far since the days of Bobby Robson and how he, and his successor Graham Taylor, would have enjoyed England’s heroics in Russia.
More than anything else, 2018 will be remembered as the year dormant England supporters became fully fledged fanatics once more. “It’s coming home”, a chant that sounded less like irony with each subsequent victory, was being sung in the street by children who know of Gareth Southgate solely as a manager. Three Lions became like a folk song passed down from generation to generation and illustrated the glorious triumph of hope over experience, exactly what being a football fan is all about. More than anything else, that song is about a feeling and, on those terms, something undeniably returned to these shores over the last few weeks.
Club football is a great thing but international tournaments offer those rare moments with friends where you are all willing the same thing to happen. This World Cup had the Southgate penalty redemption arc, a man on his way home from work popping his head through the window of our living room to ask the score against Croatia and my mother insisting she would get us tickets to the final should England make it that far. The sun shone endlessly and a tune from the golden age of Britpop played on a loop. England couldn’t make their first World Cup final since before the release of Revolver but the tournament will live on and inspire legions of football fans, a fitting legacy for an exuberant month.
There is a moment in the film adaptation of Fever Pitch when Colin Firth’s character takes umbrage at the suggestion that football is only a game:
“It quite clearly isn’t “only a game.” I mean if it was do you honestly think I’d care this much? Eh? Eighteen years! Eight-teen years! Do you know what you wanted eighteen years ago? Or ten? Or five? I doubt if you wanted anything for that long.”
England fans had been waiting 28 years for a semi-final in the world’s greatest sporting competition. It’s easy to argue that it should have been their first final in 52 years but beggars can’t be choosers and Southgate did something that seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago – he made us care again.